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US Lawmakers Urge Tolerance in Kosovo, Serbia

Members of the U.S. Congress say the leaders of newly-independent Kosovo, as well as the country's Serbian minority and the government in Serbia, must work to ensure ethnic tolerance and protection. VOA's Dan Robinson has a report.

Lawmakers are concerned both that the Kosovo government follows through with commitments it has made to protect ethnic minorities, and that Serbia pursue a course that will not encourage unrest.

Congressman Howard Berman, the new Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the government in Kosovo and the one in Serbia under newly-elected Boris Tadic both share a responsibility.

"The international community, particularly the NATO Kosovo force, should continue to send strong and unambiguous signals that the minority communities can count on their protection. The Serbian minority must be allowed to prosper and participate in the new country. While we recognize the immense pain that the resolution of Kosovo's final status has caused for many Serbs, it was shameful to see the U.S. embassy in Belgrade in flames while Serbian police officers were idle bystanders watching the fire," he said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said recognition of Kosovo was an exception to the rule of discouraging secession.

He described Kosovo's leadership as focused on building its new country, and committed to protecting Serbian rights. "I can report to you that the Kosovo leaders with whom I met conveyed to me their intention to see that [U.N. special envoy on Kosovo Martti] Ahtissari's provisions, including the rights and privileges for the Serb community in Kosovo, are respected," he said.

Fried said U.S. and international financial support for Kosovo's economy will be crucial adding that ensuring peace in the new country will be, in his words, a long term challenge.

Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, said neither U.N. nor Serbian control was a workable alternative to an independent Kosovo, adding that Serbia and its people must make an important decision. "The ball is in Serbia's court. Will they keep looking backwards to alliances to Russia and fight wars of 1389 or 1999 or will they look forward and be part of the European Union and the 21st century?," he said.

"I am concerned and I have been concerned for 28 years as a member of Congress, first about the Kosovar Albanians and the breach of their human rights which occurred systematically, and now the Serbs," said Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican.

On Wednesday, U.N. authorities told Serbia to stop interfering in Serb areas of Kosovo.

February's independence declaration by Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority was recognized by more than 30 countries, including the U.S. and 15 European Union states, with others preparing to recognize it. Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus refused. U.N. Security Council members Russia and China withheld recognition.

Assistant Secretary Fried said he has no reason to believe that Serbs will engage in what he called the most provocative behaviors, adding the hope that the parliamentary election campaign in Serbia will be about its future in Europe rather than self-isolation.

Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says the U.S. and key allies must be prepared if trouble comes. "We need to be certain that our European allies will provide additional troops for Kosovo if such troops are needed," he said.

House foreign affairs chairman Berman expressed hope that the re-election of former Serbian president Boris is a sign that Serbs there do want what he called a Western-oriented future.